Bengaluru FC will be playing the AFC Cup final on November 5, the first Asian final being played by an Indian team since the Indian national team played the 1962 Asian Games final in Jakarta.
Though there were no AFC final appearances since -- India's runners-up finish at the 1964 AFC Asian Cup happened in a tournament played in round-robin format -- Bengaluru are bidding to become the first Indian team to win an international club competition since East Bengal, who won the first ASEAN Championship in Indonesia in 2003, beating Thai club BEC Tero Sasana 3-1 in the final of a tournament that involved 11 teams from 10 countries, with East Bengal representing India as an invitational team.
ESPN spoke to Bhaichung Bhutia (the topscorer of the event with eight goals), Sandip Nandy (adjudged best goalkeeper of the tournament), midfielder Alvito D'Cunha (who scored the third goal in the final), defender Deepak Mandal, and the coach Subhas Bhowmick.
How they got there
SB: I sought present Indian national coach Stephen Constantine's help to persuade the sponsors so that we could get an invitational spot to play in the tournament since we didn't really fall in the ASEAN group. We reached Indonesia around six days before the start of the tournament and played two practice matches there so that the boys could get acclimatised. The team we had was possibly the best in the country then.
BB: Playing away worked to our advantage since we weren't under any kind of pressure. Even if you have the best players you may not have the best results unless you click as a team. We had both -- the players and the rapport.
DM: We had a great pre-season training and solid preparation ahead of the tournament. Under coach Bhowmick we had a one-month pre-tournament camp in Kolkata with a South African physical trainer Kevin Jackson working with us.
SN: It was a dream coach Bhowmick saw and made us believe in. He prepared us very well for the tournament, ensuring the kind of facilities most clubs couldn't even think of back then. We stayed in a five-star hotel in Kolkata for a month during the camp before the tournament. Coach was very attentive towards everything we did. Sasthi (Duley) was one player who needed generous helpings of rice for lunch. He used to plead with the coach, "Jab tak aap mujhe chawal nahi khilaoge, main khel nahi paunga (Until you allow me to have rice I won't be able to play)".
AD: We travelled to Indonesia as underdogs. BEC Tero Sasana was a big name in Asian football during those days. But we had confidence in ourselves and coach Bhowmick kept motivating us constantly, telling us that we could win the tournament.
The Group Stage
AD: We lost our first match 1-0 to BEC Tero Sasana even though we played very good football. It was very important for us to win the next match and qualify for the knockout stage. We beat Philippines [represented by Negros Occidental FC] 6-0 and from there on things worked according to our plan. Beating the top two teams in the Indonesian league [Persita in the quarter-finals, and Petrokimia Putra in the semi-finals] helped us.
DM: Travelling abroad for the first time for a tournament of such a magnitude and losing in the very first match against the strongest team in the field was a blow to our morale and confidence. But as the tournament progressed, we could feel all the hard work we had put in during the pre-season training slowly paying off. Only after a couple of wins did we begin to believe that we can win.
SN: We went to the tournament with little hope and had never thought of making the final in our wildest thoughts. Once we did, our confidence was sky-high and we turned into a fearless and aggressive unit. We had exceeded our own expectations and felt we had nothing to lose. Also, the East Bengal team of that time had great strength and depth. Even the reserve players could have beaten a first XI side. One instance that left us shaken was Debjit's [central defender Debjit Ghosh] on-field collapse in the quarterfinals. I froze and didn't know how to react. I remember the match being stopped for close to 20 minutes.
AD: I remember coach Bhowmick telling us before the final that the only problem he was facing was in deciding who to play at left-back. Sasthi Duley promptly raised his hand and volunteered without knowing what the role demanded. Sasthi was outstanding in the final and managed to stop Chaiman, which was what coach Bhowmick actually had in mind. It was a proud moment and one of the most memorable victories for all of us. No one can tell us that what we achieved was a fluke, just the same way nobody can question Bengaluru FC's performance which has earned them a spot in the AFC Cup final.
SB: It was very difficult to beat Indonesian teams on their turf. BEC Tero Sasana had a particularly strong team. I just asked the boys to play their hearts out, and if we make the final we should feel grateful. Having followed Indian cricket, I understood how important it was for all aspects of players to be monitored. After matches or practice I used to take the players for ice baths to relax the muscles. We did what we could in that time, since there wasn't much money in Indian football then. Players took my instructions seriously and worked very hard.
DM: Debjit Ghosh suffered a serious injury and collapsed on the field during our quarterfinal match against Indonesian side Persita Tangerang. In the final, we didn't have Mahesh (Gawli), who was out with two yellow cards and Debjit, who was still recovering. That took away two crucial players out of five in defence which also comprised me, M Suresh and Douglas (da Silva). We shared a great understanding and it was tough to not have them in the final. Bhai [Bhaichung, as his team mates called him] scored an amazing goal in the match and we went on to win.
SN: I wasn't really the first-choice 'keeper for the side in that tournament so I went with zero mental preparation knowing that Sangram (Mukherjee) would play. Before lunch on the day of our first match, during the team meeting coach Bhowmick asked Sangram if he was ready to play and Sangram replied that he was injured and still in pain. Agitated, coach looked at me and said, "Nandy, you play." As fate would have it I went on to win the best 'keeper award.
DM: Honestly, we had no clue about the importance of the tournament when we went in. Only once we landed at Kolkata airport did the magnitude of our achievement hit us. Thousands had gathered to welcome us. That image is still fresh in my mind. That win was a lot more than an East Bengal victory. It was counted as a win for Indian football. Coach Bhowmick played a huge role in that achievement. He laid out the plans, we just executed them.
SN: My performance in that tournament proved to be the turning point in my career. After that, I started receiving offers from other clubs and went to play for Mahindra United. Till then there was a cocooned mentality among footballers in Bengal of not wanting to play outside the state. Before me, Kalyan Chaubey was one of the few footballers who had ventured out. Though I had apprehensions over leaving my family behind and relocating to Mumbai, that win gave me the confidence and self-belief to dream big.
BB: That win brought Indian football under the spotlight, at least in the Asian region. The reception that we got on our arrival in Kolkata after the win was stupendous. Close to 15,000 people turned up at the airport. People had lined up on both sides of the road as we headed to the Salt Lake stadium from the airport. That feeling was special and unparalleled. It would rank it as one of my best tournament victories.
AD: Today when people talk of the ASEAN Cup winners I feel so proud to have been part of such a historic achievement, one that no other Indian club has so far managed to replicate. Coach Bhowmick deserves a major share of the credit for our win: Just the way he kept us going and told us to believe in ourselves, monitoring everything that we did, even the food on our plate, eventually paid off. He used to pass by each player's table to see what they were eating, particularly on the eve and the day of the match. For instance, there weren't supposed to be more than three pieces of chicken on each player's plate. To get away, some players used to bury chicken pieces under the rice on their plate.